In my last post I said that I hadn’t seen a lot of foreign films in a while and, based on how good A Separation was, I would try to see more. Thus, Two Days, One Night was an easy choice on Netflix: critically acclaimed Belgian film with Marion Cotillard in an Oscar-nominated role. To sum up, Sandra (Cotillard) is fired after her coworkers vote to get a bonus rather than keep her on the payroll, but her boss gives her one weekend to convince them otherwise before a new vote on Monday. Everything I’d read promised a realistic, unforgiving, heartbreaking, and possibly transcendent film. But now I’m kind of eating my words, because Two Days, One Night is no A Separation.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments. Technically, it’s interesting to watch. The writer/directors, Jean-Luc and Pierre Dardenne, shoot almost exclusively with handheld in natural light on location. Coupled with long shot lengths (which, as readers know, I am a fan of in movies like this), the film has a palpable realness. But this sometimes gets a little out of hand. I appreciate scenes where these techniques combine to make me feel like I’m observing people rather than watching actors in a movie, but said scenes still have to serve a purpose. When the camera follows Sandra across a street and into a bakery where she waits in line, I expect something to happen next. But to paraphrase the Dude, “She buys the bread?” Realism’s great, but I need a plot as well.
Speaking of the plot, I admire the Dardenne brothers for not taking the easy way out. I was afraid the movie would consist of several Slumdog Millionaire-style coincidences as Sandra lobbies her co-workers: “You say you voted for the bonus because you need a new dining room table? It turns out my parents have a beautiful antique dining room table they’re not even using.” “You need the bonus because your wife lost her job washing dishes? It turns out my husband’s restaurant is looking for a dishwasher.” But these scenes are actually pretty brutal. Some co-workers say yes right away, some say no right away, and the rest are conflicted. That said, one of her conversations results in non-sequitur violence, and another involves an abusive husband so crudely drawn that its conclusion is apparent immediately. This transition from workaday realism to cartoon emotion (which happens again at the end, as there’s almost a fist-fight before the new vote) is jarring and completely out of character for the rest of the film. As for the ending, I’d call it anti-climactic, but that would imply that the film built to anything like a climax. While there is a satisfying – if muted – conclusion, the message (How Sandra got her groove back? Don’t give up?) seems a little too banal.
On a more positive note, Marion Cotillard is unequivocally great in this. A lot of her scenes involve her repeating variations of the same speech to different people, sometimes over the phone (and without the benefit of hearing the other side of the conversation, providing her an opportunity to showcase her ability to run through a range of complex emotions without any external stimulus). Each time, however, it feels real, and each speech changes subtly based one what’s happened in the previous scene. She’s easily the best thing in Two Days, One Night.
But her performance alone doesn’t save it, as the film’s flaws are too numerous. A lot of its parts are very good, and although it was boring, I was willing to wait through scene after dull scene for the transcendent ending the reviews promised. When it didn’t come, the whole thing felt like the shot of Sandra walking to the bakery and buying bread: kind of pointless.